Quake acts as wake-up call

Central Myanmar was struck by substantial earthquakes early on Sunday. A quake of 6.9 magnitude was followed over the next few hours by other temblors or aftershocks, all measuring above 5.5.

The typical Myanmar government censorship kicked in, but it appears that 13 people or more were killed and there was substantial damage in Mandalay and surrounding towns and villages.

The quake is yet another wake-up call to Thailand to shape up and sharpen disaster response programmes, which still range from ill-prepared to barely functioning.

A strong earthquake in our region is certain to be a serious event. But such an earthquake without preparation is just as certain to be many times worse. The death toll in Myanmar was bad, but it could have been worse by magnitudes had the earthquake been deeper, or closer to a major town or city.

And earthquakes are actually among the lesser threats of mass destruction in this country. Thailand has had more cases of massive flooding than earthquakes, for example. The country has had no major quakes in our lifetimes _ but has suffered a terrible tsunami. Typhoon Gay took more lives than earthquakes. Man-made disasters from war to accidental fires bring whole districts and industries to their knees.

Disaster guru Smith Dharmasaroja was predictably high-profile immediately after the Myanmar quakes. Mr Smith's reputation was enhanced by his prediction that the country was vulnerable to a huge tsunami, and was proved right in 2004. This week, he has warned that Thailand could suffer a 6.8-magnitude quake, followed by a tsunami. It could, he said, "lead to doomsday".

One need not be a doomsayer, however, to see the dangerous and tragic flaws in the current system. Mr Smith, chairman of the National Disaster Warning Council, had few encouraging words.

Survivors in Myanmar said Monday they had seen no relief workers. Thailand's response system is only marginally better.

This is because of two reasons. The first is that the existing disaster response training has come almost completely because of one event _ the 2004 tsunami that took the lives of 8,000 Thais and tourists. Thus, there is an actual warning system and a response plan of sorts in place.

But what is the plan to respond to an earthquake, say, or the next typhoon?

There is no decent answer. The reason is that planning on responses for terrible natural and man-made disasters has never been a serious policy of any government. This is a tragedy. Who but the central government can marshall national resources for a local or regional disaster?

The only viable response team from the national level is the military. As they showed last year during the floods, members of the armed forces are always ready to step up, to help to the best of their abilities. But under a professional and responsive national disaster centre, the military would be only one part of a team of responders.

Thais must hope that they never have to depend on a well-oiled, highly prepared disaster response team _ because it does not exist. But it should. It will take a forward-looking government to establish it. There is a strong need for such a team, and it should be one of the national priorities.

Related search: Smith Dharmasaroja, Myanmar earthquake